First Enlighteners*


Right Hand of St. Thaddeus the Apostle, with relic, XVII

Source: Treasures of Echmiadzin

"Throughout all centuries, past religion has played a great moral and social role in influencing the history of peoples . . . At least some, if not all, of the feasts of the church comprise the structure of Armenian community life.  Thus, such celebrations serve not only for the preservation of our religious and moral precepts, but also for the general aim of reinforcing our national character." *

Entry of Christianity into Armenia

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Before embracing Christianity as a nation faith, the Armenian people had a religion based on a pantheon of gods representing Creation, Life and Virtue, Light and the Sun, Arts and Literature, Valor, Fertility, and other concepts of man's existence.  Of course, for each of these gods there were temples and appropriate festivals and ceremonies, forming a body of customs and traditions.

The corresponding pagan priests were known as "kourms", who formed an elite and influential class, highly respected by royalty and by the people.

The life of the people was tied to these pagan festivals until the beginning of the fourth century, when in 301 (some scholars put it earlier, at 287) in the days of King Tiridates (Trdat) and St. Gregory the Enlightener (Lousavorich) a great religious upheaval occurred and for the first time, Christianity became the official religion of a nation and a people. 

The ceremonial commemoration of the Feast of the First Enlighteners, Christ's Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, symbolizes that reality.  The teaching of Christianity and the planting of the faith in Armenia began in the first century.

We read in the Gospels that Christ, before His Ascension, gave this bidding to His Apostles.  "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).

It is quite clear that St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew were chosen to preach Christianity in that region of which Armenia was a part, a region in those times considered important, and with large populations.  The apostles not only carried out that difficult assignment, but they also succeeded in establishing the Church of the Armenians, which began secretly to spread.

Even in the first century they founded monasteries, churches, and convents in Armenia.  And as propagators of the new faith, they sacrificed their lives in the name of the True Word.

Based on these historical facts, the Armenian people have always been proud that their Mother Church of Armenia, was established by the very apostles of Jesus.

Using the qualifier "Apostolic" means that the church was founded by Christ's apostles.


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The Apostle St. Thaddeus: Who Was He?

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He was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.  He was known also as Lebbaeus, Judas, Thaddeus, or Judas James (not Judas Iscariot, the betrayer).  He is regarded to have been the brother of the Apostle Thomas.  His date of birth is uncertain.  He was probably a Galilean.  He met a martyr's death in about the year 46.

We come upon his name in the following parts of the New Testament: Matt 10:2-4; Mark 4:18-19; Luke 6:14-16, where he is identified as Judas, son of James; and in Acts 1:13 where it is confirmed that he was the son of James.

After Jesus' Ascension, the Apostle Thaddeus started his hallowed mission preaching in Edessa; from there he went on to Armenia.  He was able to penetrate even into the royal palace, probably to make it easier to spread the faith among the people.  He baptized the maiden Sandoukht, daughter of the Prince Sanatrouk, as a Christian.

Under the pressure of the kourms and the palace court, Sanatrouk attempted to bring his daughter back into the fold of the old faith, worshipping the gods of their pantheon.  On failing to do so, after imprisoning her in Artaz and subjecting her to various deprivations, he had his daughter Sandoukht and the Apostle Thaddeus put to death.

Up until the time of his martyrdom, the apostle had preached the new faith widely in the province of Artaz.  At about the year 66, the Christian faithful had already established a monastery bearing the name of Thaddeus, or Thade.  Over the centuries, this monastery grew and prospered and became one of the people's important spiritual centers.  Historian Modes of Khoren, in his History of the Armenian, makes mention of this monastery.  During the 14th century, as a result of a powerful earthquake, the monastery and its church were destroyed.  But they were rebuilt not long after.  The monastery's fame as a fine and hallowed institution has captivated even foreigners and Muhammedans; even to the present time they go there on pilgrimages.  The monastery of St. Thaddeus today comes under the jurisdiction of the Diocesan Council of the Azerbaijan Diocese of the Armenians of Iran.  Since 1953, the Armenians of Iran have organized large annual pilgrimages there, during the month of July.

Note:  The whole complex of the monastery, as an old Christian center and as an architectural structure of high worth, is included in the register of historical sites worthy of preservation, as recognized by the government of Iran, and by UNESCO.


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Sacred Relics of the Armenian Church

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According to historical accounts, the Apostle St. Thaddeus had taken with him to Armenia the Holy Spear (Geghard), with which the centurion named Lucian had pierced Jesus' side when He was still on the Cross.

The Holy Spear is presently being vigilantly preserved in Holy Etchmiadzin.  The Armenian Church regards it as one of its most valuable and hallowed spiritual relics.  It is used once every seven years during the ceremony of the consecration of the Holy Chrism (Miuron).


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Forearm of the Apostle St. Thaddeus

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The forearm of the Apostle St. Thaddeus, one of the First Enlighteners of the Armenian Church, a most important spiritual relic, is preserved in Holy Echmiadzin, under the care of His Holiness, the Catholicos of All Armenians.


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Apostle St. Thaddeus, Founder of the Angegh Monastery

Southeast of the village of Artamet , in the region of Vaspourakan , is the Holy Astvadzadzin (Mother-of-God) of Angegh.  It is said that the Apostle Thaddeus, being directed by the Mother-of-God he saw in a dream, destroyed the pagan temple of Angegh and started the construction there of a Christian Church, which then was torn down by demons during the night.  After prayers by the Apostle Thaddeus, and instructions of the Mother-of-God in a vision, many people of Angegh arrived disguised as angels and mercilessly overpowered the demons which, assuming the form of ravens, flew off in retreat.  It was following that episode that the name became Angegh Monastery.


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Apostle St. Bartholomew: Who Was He?

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He was one of The Twelve, the 12 Disciples of Jesus.

It is thought that the name Bartholomew was more a family name, a surname meaning "Son of Tholmia."  Bartholomew is also given the name Nathaniel, which means "Gift of God."  His date of birth is unknown.  He was born in the city of Cana, in Galilee.

The Gospel according to John gives much information on Bartholomew's selection as an apostle, his first meeting with Jesus, his person, and his sterling character, all well attested to by Jesus.

Here is a description of the First Enlightener of the Armenians: "Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, 'We have found him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.'  Nathaniel said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'  Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'  Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him, and said of him, 'Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile;" (John 1:45-47).

Bartholomew preached Christianity in India, Persia, and Arabia, and in Armenia where he was martyred, crucified head down.  The martyrdom took place probably in the year 66.  Armenian faithful consecrated the site of the martyrdom, and later, on the gravesite, erected the Monastery of St. Bartholomew.

Notwithstanding, in contradiction to the story of Bartholomew's life, records of witnesses, and traditions, religious fanatics in the west claim that after Bartholomew's death his body was miraculously transported to the city of Benevento, in the center of a state of the same name, in Italy.

-- Encyclopedia of religion, p. 109

Bartholomew was also called the apostle first to believe.  Such an appellation is ascribed to him because he was the first of the apostles to believe in Jesus' divinity and to declare it. "Nathaniel answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!" (John 1:49)

In an amazing coincidence, just as the first Armenian Enlightener (Gregory) was the first Armenian to declare Jesus' divinity, in the same way it was through him, Gregory, that the Armenian nation entered Christianity.  Thus, they were the first people to do so as a nation, being the First Believer Government, declaring Christianity as the national faith.

St. Bartholomew's name appears in the following passages of the Gospels:  Matt 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; and John 1:45-49 (as Nathaniel).

He is regarded, along with St. Thaddeus, as the first to preach Christianity in Armenia, founder of Christ's church, and first enlightener.  This belief is held by all churches.

This apostle's preaching in Armenia began in the province of Goghtan.  There he founded a church named Tyarndarach (Presentation of the Lord).  Subsequently, he preached in the regions of Siunik, Ayrarat, and Vaspourakan, everywhere establishing a nucleus of believers.  In the Province of Antzevats, he founded a church named Astvadzadzin (Mother-of-God) and a convent.  Within the walls of that church, he secretly concealed a portrait of the Mother-of-God, shrouded there to protect it and to prevent is being desecrated by heathens.

Just what that portrait was is described in tradition as follows.  About 15 years after Christ's Crucifixion, when the Mother-of-God's earthly life had come to an end, all of the apostles, except Bartholomew, gathered around her deathbed.  After the burial, St. Bartholomew, who had arrived later, was given the portrait of the Holy Virgin to console him.  It was that portrait that the apostle had taken with him to Armenia.  The portrait had been in the care of Evangelist John.

St. Bartholomew also had succeeded in preaching Christianity within the royal palace.  He gave a Christian baptism to King Sanatrouk's sister Oguhi, and to the military commander Terentios.  As a consequence, the king ordered the slaying of his sister, the commander, and the apostle as well.

In memory of this First Enlightener, the Armenian people in the fourth century built a monastery in the province of Aghbak, in Vaspourakan .  On a tablet mounted in one of the four vestries of that monastery is an inscription stating that the Apostle St. Bartholomew is buried there.

The monastery is today in partially destroyed condition.


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Hallowed Relics and Traditions from the lives of Armenia's First Enlighteners

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The Hallowed Spear (Geghard)

Within all of Christendom, and for all churches, the hallowed spear is regarded as the most sacred.  It was at the Crucifixion when "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water."  (John 19:34)  This relic, the spear, is known in our classical literature as Sourp Geghard.  It was brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus.

Because of persistent hostile aggression the spear was being safeguarded near the village of Garni, in the Ayri Bank (Cave Monastery).  For this reason, the monastery became known as the Monastery of the Hallowed Geghard.  It was only late in the previous century that this sacred relic was transferred to Etchmiadzin, under the care of the Catholicos of All Armenians.  It is brought out once every seven years for the consecration of the Holy Chrism.


Portrait of the Mother-of-the-Lord

Again, one of the most revered relics for all of Christendom is the Portrait of the Mother-of-the-Lord, imaged on wood.  The apostles gave it to St. Bartholomew after he had been unable to be at the side of the Mother-of-the-Lord's deathbed.

"The Apostle Bartholomew took this portrait to Armenia to a place called Darbnots Kar in the province of Antzevats where there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Anahit.  There he had a church and convent built, and in it he placed the portrait (Khorenatsi, 295).  It is here that a monastery named Hogeats Vank still stands.  Further precise information on the safe-keeping of this portrait is lacking" (Ormanian, vol. I, Book 1, pp 31-35).


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Continued >>>>



*The text for this topic is taken from: Feast of the Armenian Church and National Traditions. Garo Bedrossian, Translated by Arra S. Avakian; Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, Los Angeles, Dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity in Armenia; Publication of the printed volume was made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Manuel and Josephine Sassounian, In Memory of their Father, Dikran Sassounian.  Printed by Yerevan Printing and Publishing, Gledale, California.  Original publication in Armenian by Nor Gyank Publishing House, Series No. 9.



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